adorns the Singapore stage
Mamallapuram, the ancient coastal city on the Bay of Bengal, is remembered today as the Pallava kings’ gift to Tamilnadu. Mamallapuram was the dream of the visionary ruler Mahendra Pallavan who reigned in the 6th / 7th century AD. He was a ruler who was loved by his people and who worked tirelessly to maintain peace for his people for twenty-five years – when suddenly war loomed at his gates! King Pulikesi of the neighboring Chalukya Empire, was almost at the Pallava kingdom’s door step with an menacing army of 16,000 elephants, 12,000 cavalry and over a lakh of foot soliders. News came as the army had reached Tungabadra River! Facing certain defeat, King Mahendra Pallava performed a magnificent feat of camouflage, secrecy and political outmaneuvering to prolong peace for ten years, only to lose his life in battle trying to save his beloved capital city Kanchi – the Pallava capital.
This is the
historical background that fuelled the brilliant mind of Kalki Krishnamurthy
for his memorable story SIVAKAMIYIN SAPATAM. One of the most luminary writers
of the 20th century, Kalki, as he was called with affection and awe, wove
spellbinding narratives creating fictional characters located in actual
historical times. 'Ponniyin Selvan' and 'Parthiban Kanavu' are memorable
for the richness of their full blooded heroes and heroines located directly
within actual historical events of South India. The stories, serialized
in the immensely popular Tamil magazine Kalki, captured the imagination
of an entire generation of readers who would wait avidly for the next issue
of the magazine so that they could participate in the highs and lows of
the wonderfully etched characters. A runaway hit for 12 years was his story
of the dancing heroine of Kanchi, SIVAKMIYIN SAPATAM. The human life drama
woven into the story was so believable and intense that millions were gripped
with SIVAKAMI fever throughout these years, many actually learning to read
and enjoy the Tamil language through the colourful saga of kings, war and
award winning choreographer and cultural icon in Singapore for over 30
years, Neila Sathyalingam has a penchant for large brush strokes, having
prepared dancers and floats for the annual Chingay Chinese New Year processions
down Orchard Road. The 65 actors and dancers filled Victoria Theatre's
majestic proscenium stage with the throbbing spectacle of ambition, power,
heroics and cunning. There were so many memorable scenes, the major one
for this writer being the coming alive of the dance sculptures during the
dream of sculptor Ayanar – a moment that sent a 'frisson' through the audience
who then burst into spontaneous applause!
Krishnakshi, the guest artiste from India, as Sivakami was simply superb. Through dance and dialogues, she held her own throughout the play. Dedicated as the epitome of beauty, grace and the very soul of the capital city Kanchi, Sivakami finds herself alone and abandoned through the vagaries of fate and her own pride. In her final days, she immerses herself in the service of Lord Ekambareswarar. Alone but not forgotten, an iconic image representing an era of grace that ended with an avoidable tragedy! Krishnakshi carried the character on her expressive shoulders with maturity and a magnificent stage presence.
Selvanathan as Naganandhi was a convincing actor who conveyed his love for art and his affinity for scheming. In the pivotal role as the monk-brother of the marauding ruler Pulikesi, the struggle between his love of art and duty to his brother was convincingly portrayed. Noteworthy were his voice modulations during the furtive mourning of Sivakami – the 'Kanchi Sundari,' who swoons after dancing on the streets all day to save her people while his brother, the heartless King Pulikesi threatens to torture the citizens of Kanchi, was brilliant.
Sivakumar as Pulikesi, Emperor of the Chalukyas, who ravages Kanchi and razes this enchanted city to the ground, was played with mature measure and restraint. As the symbol of ego and ravenous pride, Sivakumar maintained this clear diction throughout the play. The moment when he holds the conquered Sivakami's face in his hands and asks sarcastically, "Is it your youth or your art that makes my brother Naganandi forget all his duties?" was performed with the coiled anger of a merciless ruler.
Mahendravarman was played by actor Mathialagan who was truly outstanding.
An award winning actor on stage and TV, Mathialagan brought great dignity
to his all important role. As the spy Vajra Bahu and as king of Kanchi,
he held his own and manipulated his conversations with seasoned maturity.
As the king he was regal, as the spy/strategist he conveyed the zeal and
manipulative mind of an informer. His body language was convincing
as was his dialogue delivery in English. A pivotal double role played to
perfection that gave audiences a character who was so deeply invested in
his kingdom and his people. Through his portrayal, the rapt audience felt
his palpable love for his capital city eulogized by poets in these memorable
The crowd scenes during battles were particularly well directed, with entries and exits always neat and well rehearsed. This spoke of the choreographer’s vast experience with a large cast and artistes from varied linguistic and cultural backgrounds.
The Ravindra Drama group of Singapore collaborated with Neila Sathyalingam's Apsara Arts dancers for this mammoth venture. The mélange of dance and theatre, of spoken text and the sung/danced lyric never outshone one another. This delicate balance was maintained throughout, heightened by the multicultural orchestral score composed by L Krishnan and Aravinth Kumaraswamy, gripping dialogues by Chennai Koothu-P-Pattarai's Kumaravel, and lavish costumes designed by Neila Sathyalingam.
The two performances
were graced by two special dignitaries. On opening night it was Mr. Tharman
Shanmugharatnam, Minister for Education and Second Minister of Finance.
On the second day, Mr. Tommy Koh, Chairman National Heritage Board.
Both men were lavish in their praise of Neila Sathyalingam’s unswerving
zeal for the promotion of Indian dance and music in the rapidly changing
face of Singapore.
Neila is acutely conscious of her Tamil roots and the rapidly declining readership among Singaporean and global youth for classical literature. Through SIVAKAMIYIN SAPATAM, she hoped to make her own favourite serial reawaken her personal beliefs and love of India, the land that is 'bhakti naadu,' 'pannbu naadu,' 'maanam maryada naadu.'
For this writer,
having witnessed so many dance and music performances over 50 years in
Tamilnadu, the diasporic verve and old-world commitment of the dancers
and actors were most touching. Through dance, music and theatre, these
Singaporeans maintain contact with the motherland they have all left behind
many generations ago.